Because I don’t have dreadlocks, tattoos, or piercings, and because I use non-crystal deodorant, shave my legs, and eat meat, I fully understood everyone’s surprise that I lived on Smith Avenue.
In my accounting program, we called Smith “Enviro Ave”, or “Grow-op Co-op” or even, depending on the audience, “The Kibbutz”. But, when my roommate dropped out two weeks before classes started, breaking our lease, I toured one too many expensive, mildewy basement apartments without windows or usable internet, and started calling numbers on the Student Lounge Housing Board for shared accommodation, no matter what the address. And Spike, when he showed me around the house, really didn’t seem that unusual to me (other than the obvious combination of one hundred forty pounds at six feet three inches). He didn’t ask me about any of the topics I had researched: winter cycling, benefits of agave syrup over sugar, or nontoxic household cleaners. He did seem very interested and supportive regarding my family background: Mom’s early Alzheimer’s, Dad’s subsequent departure from the family, and my brother’s teaching internship in Hong Kong. It seemed like a lot of personal questions just to split the rent, but it was Smith Avenue, and I told myself I was learning a new culture.
In the same spirit, I put up with the rows of laundry hanging overhead in my bedroom, dripping onto my furniture, creating the humidity of a rain forest; it was decided at the house meeting that we were no longer using the dryer (too much electricity), and the municipality—which “we” were fighting—forbade outdoor clotheslines. I put up with the toilet, which was not actually a toilet but a bucket, and I put up with the sawdust bin, and poured the sawdust onto my own excrement to reduce the stink, and I took my turn pouring the buckets down the chute into the basement where apparently there was some kind of composting arrangement. I put up with the odour, a concerning blend of perspiration, curry, and another, less definable smell; that of decay, or rotting meat, despite the household crawling with vegans. But it was the chewing that I could not stand. It was the endless, relentless, sound of chewing.
It was easy to blame Spike. I don’t think I ever saw him without food, always something crunchy: he ate whole green peppers like apples, or stood at the kitchen counter with large field cucumbers, munching away. I sometimes envisioned a python unhinging its jaw to swallow enormous prey, pictured Spike’s long, thin neck with an entire pumpkin protruding, or a watermelon, or some other organic goitre. I noticed early on, however, that the chewing persisted even when Spike was in class, volunteering at the animal shelter, or playing on his Ultimate Frisbee team.
I began to keep track. Chewing louder at night. Chewing louder in the bathroom, and also in my room (related to being close to the bathroom?). Chewing actually intermittent, so that just as I thought it had stopped and was drifting off to sleep, it would suddenly start up again, like a water torture.
Rick was evasive on the topic. Called “Radioactive Rick” by the house group, he was forever reading inconceivable textbooks on nuclear physics, leaving them lying around the house to be ridiculed by housemates who picked them up and read aloud dramatically, soliloquys of unpronounceable words and indecipherable equations. He was the brains behind the indoor composting. When I asked him about the chewing, he ran his hands through his hair (long, chaotic, an untended lawn— do physicists all need to resemble Einstein?) and said,
“It’s probably Spike. He’s always eating.”
“I can hear it when Spike isn’t here.”
“Don’t you hear it?”
I noticed his eyes, skittering around the room, finally resting on his fingernails, but Rick had poor eye contact in general. His white shirt was pressed and impeccable; our main item of common interest was ironing. Not so much an enjoyment of ironing, more a shared awareness of ironing as a concept, unlike our remaining roommates.
“Rick. You’re a terrible liar. I know you hear it. Is someone keeping a pet here?”
“Jayden. Have you considered that this sound, if no one else can hear it, may not be real?” His gaze met mine this time, seemed to penetrate to my core, and I noticed for the first time that one of his eyes was brown, the other blue. I felt as if cool fingers rested on the back of my neck, though we were alone in the room.
For the next few days I avoided the house: library, gym, coffee shop, anywhere. I crashed on couches, I endured the ridicule of friends in accounting (Are you rinsing and reusing your tampons yet?). I enjoyed the smells of regular life, the flush toilets, the non-soy lattes, the car, even the drive-thru, where I ordered a burger. A beef burger. Even away from the house, however, Smith Avenue followed me. I noticed water wastage even while enjoying a flush. I noticed the endless café parade of plastic garbage bags, overflowing with waxed cardboard cups and discarded food. I noticed the ghostly puffs of exhaust hovering above the cars ahead of me on a still, cloudless day.
What I also noticed: the hushed chattering and muted laughter of the library, the echoing clangs and thumping music of the gym, the whirring and hissing of the café machinery, all without the sound of chewing. Away from the house on Smith Avenue, I heard none of the incessant, mouth-wide-open chewing that dominated my auditory existence within.
“I’m back.” I announced, dodging the bicycles hanging from the entryway ceiling, dropping my backpack and gym bag onto the cork floor of the living room.
“Hey, were you gone?” Voula and her new boyfriend (Tico? Rico?) sat entwined in the beanbag chair, their long curls mingling, a single two-headed being with layers of scarves and skirts, and various limbs of unclear origin.
“She’s been gone for five days.” I had nearly missed Adam, folded into the window seat, laptop perched on his knees. “We thought you were taking off to bunk in with the math geeks.” I laughed, as if the idea had never occurred to me in my wildest dreams.
“I just needed a little break.” I paused for effect. “From the chewing.” Adam’s laptop suddenly slipped off his knees and he rolled sideways to grab it. Voula looked at Adam, then back at me.
“What chewing?” She asked, catching her tongue stud between her teeth, studying me with kohl-rimmed eyes.
“Hey, that’s weird, man! I thought…” Tico/Rico was interrupted by a sudden passionate kiss from Voula. I raised an eyebrow and turned back to Adam.
“What chewing?” He asked. He rubbed his goatee. He glanced at Voula and Tico/Rico, as they climbed out of the beanbag and moved down the hallway, still attached.
“Adam. There is chewing in this house. There is something in this house. I know you can hear it, I know I’m not crazy, and you need to tell me what it is.”
“Maybe it’s Spike. He’s always eating.”
“IT IS NOT SPIKE! IT IS NOT SPIKE. IT IS NOT NORMAL.”
“Why am I not normal?” Spike appeared in the doorway, crunching on a full stalk of celery, spares in hand.
“I am asking Adam,” I said, in my best kindergarten teacher enunciation, “about the chewing noise I hear in this house.”
“My chewing?” asked Spike.
I gathered my bags and returned to my room. I closed the door, leaned against it, and closed my eyes, taking deep breaths. Small victory: my laundry was now dry. And, being beside Voula’s room, the noise of mastication was temporarily blocked out by the murmurs and moans of copulation.
That evening, it was my turn to do the composting. I lugged the large plastic pail from the kitchen, filled with food scraps from the day, into the bathroom. The former laundry chute, accessed through a cupboard, was the entry point into the basement composting system. I poured the slithery pile into the chute and set down the pail, pausing before step two– the toilet compost. Through the open cupboard, I could hear the sound very clearly this time, louder than I had ever heard it, coming up through the chute: a sliding, grinding noise, followed by chewing. Possibly, there was even a small belch. I ran to my room, grabbed my keychain with its tiny LED flashlight attached, and climbed onto the shelf in the cupboard. Leaning over the laundry chute, I peered down, shining my light directly inside.
Nothing. The chute had a bend partway down, and I could not see beyond it. A few particles of food clung to the sides; some coffee grounds, possibly mildew. Climbing back down, I donned my rubber gloves ( I provided my own, no one else used them) and emptied the toilet bucket down the chute, holding my breath against odour and sawdust inhalation. For a moment, there was silence below; soon, however, the sound of chewing resumed. Abandoning the buckets, and my gloves, I ran down the hall to Rick’s room, throwing open the door. He jumped up from his desk, where he was sitting in front of his laptop.
“Geez Jayden, you scared me! Can’t a guy have some privacy around here?” He pushed down the lid of his laptop, which was showing photos of some kind of insect.
“What, you’re worried I might see that you like bugs? Like it’s not obvious?” I waved my hand at the walls, covered with shadow boxes of beetles, butterflies and spiders, all meticulously labelled. Among these were a world map, a map of the solar system, and, improbably, an AC/DC poster. Unlike the rain forest in my room, Rick had a single drying rack with several tidy pairs of jeans. Rick started to cross his arms, then changed his mind and stood leaning on his desk.
“Jayden, what do you want?”
“I know there is something in the basement. I want to see the compost system. Now.”
“You want to see the compost system?”
I walked until my face was two inches from Rick’s. I gazed into his bi-coloured eyes, close enough to smell his breath. Hummus and garlic.
“Rick. I am not fooling around. I am not crazy. I can hear something downstairs, and I want to know what the hell it is.” Rick gazed back at me for a full minute before responding.
“Jayden. For a smart girl paying low rent, you are asking a lot of questions and getting all worked up about nothing. Why don’t you get a dehumidifier, play some music, or have noisy sex like Voula, if sounds bother you so much? Why does it matter?”
“It just does. I want you to show me.”
We stood, still inches apart, until Rick put his hands behind my head, pulling me into him, kissing me hard on the mouth, forcing his tongue between my lips. I was so unprepared, it took a moment before I put my hands onto his chest and pushed myself away, wiping my mouth, heart pounding.
“What the hell was THAT? What is wrong with you?”
Rick was flushed, but calm. He dropped his gaze.
“I’m sorry, Jayden. I’m sorry. I just thought maybe–”
“You just thought WHAT?”
“Nothing. It doesn’t matter. I’ll show you what you want, Jayden. I’ll show you the system.”
He lifted his head to look at me again, shoulders sagging.
“I will.” Rick grabbed his keys off the desk and gestured toward the door.
We walked back down the hallway and into the kitchen, where Spike and Adam were preparing a meal together, or rather Adam was preparing food, and Spike was doing air guitar to Eric Clapton. Rick turned down the speaker, putting up his hand to quiet Spike’s shout of protest.
“I’m just going to show Jayden the compost system. At her request.” Spike sprawled into a chair, biting off a large chunk of carrot with the top still attached, gazing at me, then at Rick. Adam stopped chopping and looked at me for a moment, then turned and resumed his task. Rick turned the music back up.
The door to the basement was off the entryway, padlocked. Rick opened the lock and the door, pulling a penlight from his pocket against the sudden darkness. The stairs were plain cement, with another door at the base of the stairs, also locked. Rick pulled the upper door closed behind me, shutting out the noise of the music, leaving us in a thick silence, sharing our triangle of light. We descended together, and Rick unlocked the lower door.
“You stay here for a minute, I’m going in first and then I’ll come and get you.”
“I’ll be right back.” Rick pulled the door open with a negative-pressure sucking sound, and pulled it closed behind him, leaving me blind in the stairwell. In the few seconds before he closed the door, I could hear the chewing, louder than I had ever heard it. With the door closed, I could hear just the slightest noises: Rick’s voice murmuring, some scraping. I could feel vibration. I felt suddenly cold, but realized my shirt was clingy with sweat. I considered running back up the stairs, back to my room, maybe even running out of the house altogether, just running, but I had to know.
I had to know.
The door sucked back open and Rick emerged with the light. He handed me the penlight, cold and slippery in my hands. I could see that his white, white shirt was greenish and shiny along the sleeve, and the shoulder. His hands were wet, and his shoes.
“What, you’re not coming with me?”
“No. I think you should go alone.” Rick avoided my eyes as I walked forward with the light, and grasped the door handle. He stepped out of the way, and I pulled hard. The door opened, and I stood in the narrow opening, facing the heavy blackness, inhaling the rotten odour that had so eluded me, feeling the vibration and the dampness. I swallowed, walking forward into the dark, my trembling light slowly rising toward the sound of chewing.